The cofounders of Witchsy, an online marketplace for dark or funny art that wasn’t a good fit for other arts marketplaces, last year accidentally conducted an experiment on sexism in tech. Fast Companybriefly described their experience in an August 2017 article—a story that quickly went viral. And last month, at the Atlantic Inclusion in Tech summit, the Witchsy cofounders—Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer—filled in the fascinating details.
Gazin and Dwyer created a fake male cofounder, Keith Mann, who was nothing more than an email address. Their intent was to use Mann as the fall guy for when things went wrong.
“We thought we would make fun of him,” Dwyer explained. “We would say Keith doesn’t understand this, that kind of thing.”
What they didn’t intend was for Keith Mann to be a social experiment, but that is what he turned out to be.
Initially, they just copied Mann on emails sent to outsiders; his fall guy role was kept in reserve.
But, says Dwyer, about two weeks after starting to copy Mann, they began to notice that their work with outside developers was going much more smoothly.
Before Keith, Gazin says, when a developer didn’t deliver on a contract, they got pushback, along the lines of “You ladies don’t know what you’re talking about.”
And, Dwyer said, “When we proposed an idea, developers would say, ‘Are you sure you want to do it this way? We haven’t seen companies doing it this way.’”
Then came Mann. “Everything was going faster, people weren’t questioning things,” Dwyer said.
And when they started letting Keith propose ideas, no more pushback—Mann’s ideas were received as great from the start.
“Whenever we emailed a developer, he would never address us by name,” Dwyer said. “But when Keith emailed, every email came back, ‘Keith, yes.’ There were a lot more yeses. So we thought, ‘OK, Keith is on the team.’”
The two started fleshing out the Keith Mann identity. They gave him a face—a picture they found by googling “handsome businessman.” They made excuses for why he couldn’t pick up the phone.
“One time,” Gazin said, “when someone wanted a call, the email sent said ‘I have to pick up my mother-in-law at the airport; obviously I would rather be working.’ The response was ‘Oh Keith, I totally understand.’”
After the story came out, the two said, the developers who had been interacting with Mann never said a word about it.
“If anything, they were embarrassed,” Dwyer says.
Keith Mann, Dwyer says, has retired after all the publicity, though Gazin admits that in her personal art practice she still does pretend to be a man on occasion, particularly when working with manufacturers in China.
Given the ongoing sexism in the tech world, however, they aren’t ready to permanently swear off false identities just yet.
“Keith’s brother—John Boy, maybe—might have to come work for us some day,” say Gazin.
Dwyer and Gazin’s story hit quite close to home for me. In my many years as a tech journalist, I have been regularly assumed to be a man. In my first year or so, back in the dark ages when all correspondence came on paper, I clipped the address block from letters and made a collage of mistaken identities on my cubicle wall—but that quickly grew too big to keep going. These days, in the informality of the email world, I can’t always tell what correspondents are assuming; even on first mailings, I’m typically addressed as Tekla, not Mr. or Ms. Perry. Photos that accompany Linked In listings and other social media accounts make it easier for people to avoid gender mistakes. Still, first phone calls—or first in-person meetings—still sometimes lead to a moment of shock.
None of that is particularly odd. But I do confess that I have never corrected anyone who assumed I was a man. I never sent a letter back with a Ms. on the address line, or an email indicating, by the way, I’m not a mister. If we spoke or met, they self-corrected; if not, I let the mistake stand.
Until I heard this presentation, I never gave that much thought—but now, asking myself why I didn’t make the correction, I know it wasn’t because I didn’t want to make the sender feel awkward. It was because the assumption gave me some tiny bit of advantage, some extra credibility, a little more likelihood that anything I wrote would be given serious consideration.
In the future, maybe I’ll just forward folks this blog post.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.